complete compassion

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-outsidebedOur chavurah is reading together through Luke in the Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, and this week we came to this verse: “Therefore, be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Lk 6:36), the climax to Messiah Yeshua’s instructions to love our enemies and be generous toward the undeserving.


Matthew, in his parallel section, records Yeshua saying, “Therefore, be complete, just as your Father who is in heaven is complete” (Mt 5:48). Scholars can discuss the difference in wording, but what stands out for mussar purposes is that the kind of compassion that Messiah tells us to practice is complete, meaning that it applies to everyone we meet. In both Luke and Matthew, the point is to be “sons of the Highest,” who sends his rain and sunshine upon all, the worthy and the unworthy, and “is good also to those who are ungrateful and evil” (Lk 6:35). Apparently, Messiah wants us to view everyone we encounter with compassion, whether or not we think they’re worthy of it. Indeed, no one is worthy of compassion, and that’s just the point. The link between compassion and completeness is seeing every person—those I’d consider good and those I’d consider bad—as equally dependent on God’s mercy. Since I have to include myself in this category of the mercy-dependent, I grant mercy, or compassion, to everyone.

Nice theory, but how do we really put it into practice?

In Luke, Yeshua immediately moves on to the subject of judgment—“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37). Do have compassion; don’t judge. Judgment is the opposite of compassion. Instead of looking on the other with mercy, and overlooking his or her failings, judgment looks at the failings and weighs the whole person accordingly. Judgment considers the worthiness of each one and responds accordingly; compassion recognizes that we’re all unworthy and responds with mercy.

Alan Morinis notices this contrast between compassion and judgment, although he suggests a different basis for compassion than I would. He sees compassion arising when we “perceive the untainted soul that is the kernel of [the other person]—the image of the divine that is reflected in ourselves as well. This perception leads us to suspend our own sense of judgment of the other” (Everyday Holiness, p. 84). Yeshua tells us to be compassionate not because of the untainted soul at the center of the other person, but because we all are in need of God’s compassion; we’re all tainted whether we recognize it or not, and God has mercy on us all. Regardless of this difference, though, it’s striking that Morinis points out the same contrast between compassion and judgment that the Master himself teaches. And this contrast provides us with a key to practicing compassion. It means overcoming my tendency to assess and evaluate every person I meet, to sort people into the worthy vs. the unworthy, the cool vs. the uncool, into us and them. Instead I am poised for compassion, looking for the opportunity to show some kindness and mercy to everyone I run into.

As we were discussing this passage in Luke, one of the couples in our chavurah talked about volunteering at an outreach to the homeless in our city just that week. The passage opens with Messiah’s saying, “O, your gladness, you poor! For yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). The husband asked how you tell that verse to a lady they met who’d just become homeless a day or two earlier, and was crying because she was tired and wanted to take a nap and didn’t have anywhere to lie down. The wife started crying herself as they told the story. We agreed that quoting that verse at the moment wouldn’t be an act of compassion, and discussed other ways to show compassion. But my chavurah friends had already gotten to the heart of it simply by taking on the pain and loneliness of this homeless woman without asking how she’d gotten herself into this mess and whether she deserved help. I’m sure they’ll find a way to put their compassion into practice.

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